Skip to comments.Frogs And Puffins! 1730s Menus Reveal Royals Were Extreme Foodies
Posted on 01/29/2014 6:00:08 PM PST by nickcarraway
yOU Think 21st century foodies will go to great lengths for a culinary thrill? (Lion meat, anyone?) Turns out, they've got nothing on 18th century English royals.
Frogs, puffins, boar's head and larks and other songbirds were all fair game for the dinner table of England's King George II, judging by a chronicle of daily meals served to his majesty and his wife, Queen Caroline.
The 160-page, grease-stained collection of royal menus, which details the meals served at Kensington Palace between 1736 and 1737, is up for auction Wednesday. And it contains plenty that might offend our modern, squeamish sensibilities starting with the royal obsession with eating baby animals, especially songbirds.
A page from King George II's manuscript menus from September 1737.i A page from King George II's manuscript menus from September 1737.
Courtesy of Dominic Winter Auctioneers They "loved to eat young birds and animals," says Ivan Day, a British food scholar who has examined the rare manuscript. "And by young, I literally mean 1- or 2-day-old babies."
Why? "Because the meat was very tender."
Sounds bad, but as Day notes, it's not that different, really, than eating lamb.
And while it may make bird-watchers blanch, the royal household wasn't alone in its love of the ortolan, a thumb-sized songbird that was a frequent if silent guest at George II's table. Indeed, the bird's modern-day endangered status didn't stop former French President Francois Mitterrand from ordering up a dish of ortolans drowned in Armagnac, no less! as his last, very illegal meal.
Some of the exotica on the menu was just a case of showing off among the nobility. Then as now, food was status: The rarer the dish, the richer the host serving it. Indeed, one reason why Master Cook William Daniel kept such detailed records, says Day, was simply "a matter of pride."
But in some cases, strange-sounding dishes, like boar's head, were really just a case of the era's nose-to-tail ethos, says Day, who frequently consults with British museums to re-create historic foods.
Diners back then "didn't waste anything," Day says. "They ate everything."
And the menu book isn't just a royal-groupie's window into the extreme eating habits of the monarchy. It's also a reflection of broader cultural, political and technological changes a foot at a time, historians say.
"It's an important little book," says Day.
Take all the tarts and puddings that get mentioned a sure sign that England's love of sugar was on the rise. The British had waged bloody battles with the Dutch in the previous century for control of the West Indies sugar trade, so the sweet stuff was becoming more available and affordable, says food historian Annie Gray, who works as a consultant with the U.K.'s Historic Royal Palaces.
Pineapples also turn up. The tropical fruit were a rare luxury, but thanks to greenhouse technology, which was just taking off in London at the time, it was possible, albeit painstaking, to grow fresh ones locally for those rich enough to afford the treats, Gray says.
Interestingly, tea that drink that has become synonymous with the English makes just a single appearance, says Chris Albury of Dominic Winter Auctioneers, which is handling the auction.
But perhaps the biggest revolution was brewing in the kitchen itself. Though it might not be obvious to a modern reader of these royal menus, British cuisine was actually in the process of becoming simpler and tastier, Gray and Day say. The sweet-and-savory mixes of the previous era, says Gray, gave way to a more butter- and cream-based cuisine.
The result? Late Georgian cooking, says Gray, was "some of the best food we've ever produced in this country."
Auctioneer Chris Albury says his firm hopes the manuscript will fetch between $8,000 and $13,000. That may sound like a lot of dough for a bunch of old menus, but, of course, says Albury, "it's not just about food it has wider cultural meanings."
UPDATE 12:57 ET: Albury tells us the book of menus sold for 5,000 pounds sterling or nearly U.S. $8,300. The buyer? The Historic Royal Palaces, which plans to put the manuscript on display at various sites.
Yah but they almost certainly didn’t make woodblocks about their meals and pass them around.
Not withstand all this, to the PETA people, a pornography in menu selections, British menus are rather bland, and the Irish more so. If one wants to get good, cosmopolitan food in the UK, London is it! London is my favorite world city, and has some of the best food selections in the world...because it has food selections from all over the world. Just don’t choose the local, fish ‘n chips, well done roast beef with several versions of potatoes, etc. And some of the good stuff is ‘street food’...not in the usual restaurant haunts.
You can find Italian that has no red sauce on the menu...you can find Chinese, that serves only with chop sticks...you can find anything you might want, if you know where to look for it. Start in the back streets off Piccadilly, or off Trafalgar...
It is there, anything you want. And when you visit the British Museum, you will know why...
The British are the thieves of the world!
BFD. BHO's Indonesian stepfather tried to get tiger meat in the belief that it would give them the traits of a tiger.
Probably explains the dog meat...
I wonder if Chef Staib has looked into early 18th century English cuisine?
I love London, and your post makes me want to get my passport out and make travel reservations. You are 100% right!
Ever seen the children’s movie- The Pirates! Band of Misfits!? My word! The evil Queen Victoria and other rulers were meeting on a luxury liner, eating exotic “foods”. They stole Polly, a dodo bird and... I never thought it was built on a truth.
The horrible Italians (and I’m one) catch the baby before it hits the ground and serve veal.
I don’t eat veal for that reason.
Milk fed veal is delicious. I’m an American and I eat whatever the hell I want to eat.
Americans dont eat babies? What do you think an egg is?
hadn’t heard that one - I generally avoid beef anyway - at least the stuff sold in stores - now a local grass fed strip is something of beauty - along with a nice local ear of sweet corn - none of these super sweet hybrids mind you - but a nice open pollinated variety - roasted in husk over a charcoal fire - a little salt and pepper on both and that’s all you need....
I had frog at a pricey French place years ago.
Problem is, just about the time you start to think “Man, this is really good...”
Ain’t much meat on a frog!
I get my frog legs from a vendor in Lafayette LA.
Deep fry them then dunk them in Remoulade dressing.
Good stuff there.
Conscientious, intelligent people on the right (me) and left who have worked on farms tend not to eat veal, because it’s disgusting, cruel, inhuman, illogical, and creepy.
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